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Gonzaga Women's Basketball

Commentary: From coaches, players and fans – a few old diehards among them – the success of Gonzaga women’s basketball has truly been a team effort

By Vince Grippi For The Spokesman-Review

The names are from another time.

Mike. Kim. Carol. Mick. Not the top of baby name lists anymore, huh?

But they tell you a lot about the people who support the women’s basketball program at Gonzaga University. All 5,000 or so of them to watch Lisa Fortier’s team win another West Coast Conference title.

But before we get into that, let’s take a moment to walk with them back to a simpler time. Back to when the Zags’ basketball program was, well, awful. Near-the-bottom-of-the-WCC awful. And their male counterparts were just ascending the national stage.

The turn of the century. Not the one those fans’ grandparents referred to, the one before the war to end all wars and such nonsense. Nope. The Y2K one. That year, the year Mark Few took over the men, Kellee Barney led Gonzaga’s women to a 2-12 mark in the WCC. Last place.

It wasn’t what Mike Roth wanted. He made a tough call. Though he still feels Barney was a great person, it wasn’t the right fit.

The Gonzaga athletic director (he retired in 2021) didn’t see a Few on the women’s staff. But there was a Graves down at Saint Mary’s doing pretty well. Had his team among the best in the conference. His wife, Mary, had relatives in the Spokane area.

One of them called Roth. Said Graves would be interested. He was. A match was made.

The 20 or so fans who showed up to games back then were thrilled. Until the Zags lost all 14 WCC games in Graves’ first year. Lost more conference games that year than Graves lost in three in Moraga, California.

“Some of that was due to restrictions we put on Kelly,” said Roth , admitting the roster didn’t have players on it needed to win. “I told Kelly we weren’t going to run anybody off.”

No matter whose fault it was, it takes decent play to attract fans. Even at GU. No chicken-or-egg debate here. Graves’ teams improved and hatched a following. Sometime around 2002 or 2003, my wife Kim came on board for good. The season tickets cost $25 a seat – for the season – so it scratched two Spokane itches: basketball and, well, cheap.

She picked out seats right behind the opponents’ bench. That way, she could listen to what a bunch of different coaches were saying to their players. It wasn’t hard. The old Kennel was pretty quiet. Intimate. We began making games our date nights.

The quiet ambiance changed, of course. There is one person to blame.

OK, a bunch, but in our home we blame, if that’s the right word, Courtney Vandersloot. You know her story. The Cinderella kid, from out of nowhere, comes across the mountains and leads Gonzaga to the promised land – known as the NCAA’s Elite Eight.

Gonzaga's Courtney Vandersloot finds a clear path the the basket against St. Mary's, January 14, 2010 in the McCarthey Athletic Center.   (DAN PELLE)
Gonzaga’s Courtney Vandersloot finds a clear path the the basket against St. Mary’s, January 14, 2010 in the McCarthey Athletic Center.  (DAN PELLE)

Success took awhile, but not the appreciation of her play. The Zags women caught on quickly. And the crowds helped lead to more success.

“It was always one of the selling points,” Graves said, taking a little time before leading Oregon in the Pac-12 Tournament. “We were one of the first that really had that atmosphere, so sure, we used it out on the recruiting trail because it was so unique.”

Even in Spokane. Heck, there weren’t a lot of ways to get into men’s games, even back in 2003. The women, however, had more room – the student section is still, sadly, minuscule, freeing up more than one-sixth of the place – and welcome arms.

And good marketing helped back in those days.

“It didn’t just happen because we were good,” Graves said. He said there was a lot of community outreach done. And then there was the value.

“Our season tickets were really low-priced so people could afford (them). And once you’re a season ticket holder, you feel a little buy-in.”

By the time Vandersloot came to town, the Zags were in their current palace. And there was a lot of buy-in. Their fans had moved with them. Though Kim stayed in a similar spot, still overhearing what she could.

But when Vandersloot left for Chicago, that ended. The crowd was too large. And loud.

The two of us had, however, made lots of new friends. The community that makes up the Gonzaga women’s basketball crowd is different from its male counterpart. And that’s OK.

It is older. It is more genteel. And, pardon for some snobbery, is more about basketball. As one Gonzaga administrator told me, the women’s crowd isn’t there to be seen but to see what happens.

The sellouts come. Maybe not every game, but often enough to become routine. Though Fortier tries, sometimes unsuccessfully, to never take it for granted.

“I walk out there every day I get to coach, and I go out through the men’s tunnel by our bench, and every once in a while I go, ‘Oh, it’s a light crowd,’ ” she said. “I have to catch myself and say, a light crowd, for us, is amazing.”

Fortier was part of the building process, starting as an unpaid assistant just as Graves’ Zags were beginning to win. She left for a year before joining Graves’ staff full time in 2007. But when Roth picked her, somewhat out of the blue to take charge in 2014, she was also handed a tough assignment too.

Keep it going.

She may have made it look easy, but don’t be fooled.

This season the Zags won their 18th WCC title, the seventh under Fortier’s watch. It may have been her best coaching job .

Her team’s 27-3 record has been built despite losing starting point guard Kayleigh Truong to a foot injury early in the year (she’s back for the tournament), as well as other starters for extended periods. At one point, the Bulldogs had seven scholarship players available.

And still won.

She was named this week as the conference’s coach of the year, an award she’s won five times.

No wonder the fans seem to love her and her family, husband Craig, who sits on the bench as well, and children Marcus, Calvin and Quincy. Like a lot of us, she didn’t grow up in Spokane. But she and Craig chose it. And haven’t left.

“It’s a relationship,” she said of the city and her team. “More so than just them coming because it’s the hot ticket or the big thing to do. That’s not why our fans come to our games. Our fans come because our players are endeared to them.

“They feel like they are a part of their lives.”

Fortier can share story after story of people who have talked with her about the terms of that endearment and how it’s been a two-way street.

“It’s not just people coming out to support us,” she said, “it’s us wanting to support them and it’s us being meaningful to them and them being meaningful to us. It is more like a relationship.”

It’s impossible to speak for every one of the team’s followers. But we can speak for those in Section 115, a few rows from the floor.

Carol, with the sign she waves after each 3-pointer. Kim and Mike, who converse constantly about everything from the officials’ calls to a near-perfect back-cut. And even a hard-boiled guy who has had the cheering gene extracted over the years. He still appreciates what’s going on a few feet away.

But even more, with memories of women’s college games of 45 years ago that were attended by handfuls of fans, what is going on behind him.